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STUDIO: BBC Warner
RATED: Not rated
RUNNING TIME: 355 minutes
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Court is now in session, the maverick Judge John Deed presiding.
Created by: G.F. Newman.
Starring: Martin Shaw, Jenny Seagrove, Barbara Thorn, Simon Chandler.
Judge John Deed is passionate and idealistic and does whatever he wants, and the government is dispassionate and realistic and tries to stop him. The government’s realism goes against the prevailing unrealistic metaphysical order of things (this being a TV drama) thus making them evil. Being evil (this being a TV drama) thus makes them inept.
Sometimes I watch television and wish the standards were lower. I know that probably seems crazy; quality programs like The Wire or Errol Morris’ First Person or Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander are few and far between, the exception and certainly not the rule. But I’ve long since made peace with the idea that television is very rarely great art; I do what (little) I can to support great shows, and indeed things have gotten better in the last ten years, but it’s still a vast wasteland. Consequently, I find myself wishing that we could have outrageously bad television shows. Television can be boring to the point of unwatchable, but I’ve never had a television show give me what I get from the films of Ed Wood, Andy Milligan or Phil Tucker. Just as the network executives keep shows from doing interesting things that might make them good, they also tend to keep them from outrageous badness. For me, what makes 99% of television not worth watching is not simply the fact that it is bad but the fact that it is a soup of mediocrity, the purgatory of the media arts. Except, unlike purgatory, having experienced it you don’t emerge a purer person, just an older one.
Judge John Deed is a steaming bowl of purgatorial mediocrity soup. A BBC drama with adequate production values, adequate acting, and formulaic 90 minute episodes. Maverick Judge John Deed gets a case, connects with it emotionally, bends the rules or breaks judicial ethics to make it go his way, all the while battling government bureaucrats who are trying to use his private indiscretions to pressure him one way or another in the case of the week. And it always happens that whatever private indiscretion he’s involved in this week ultimately in some way parallels whatever case he’s sitting for. Someone will warn Judge Deed that this time he really has gone too far. He’ll tell the bureaucrats that he was under the impression that the judicial branch was independent from the executive branch. Then Judge Deed will get his way both in court and out of court.
The bureaucrats who are constantly scheming to manipulate/blackmail/unseat Deed are truly inept; time and time again their carelessly laid plans fall apart, usually because they confront Deed with something they know he did but without any evidence to prove he did it. One wonders how these men became administrators in the British legal system without ever gaining even a basic understanding of how to prove something.
The plotlines are the stuff of a “movie of the week.” Usually an episode will open with someone being an asshole, (possibly while committing a crime, but on this show the fact that they’re being an asshole is way more important) and right there you know that that is the person of interest for this episode, whom Judge Deed will move heaven and earth and judicial code of conduct to have thrown in the slammer.
The acting is acceptable, by and large. The standout is Martin Shaw as Deed (who’s perhaps best known as Banquo in Polanski’s Macbeth); he has an admittedly charming presence. Unfortunately, that can only go so far when the storylines are so formulaic. To make matters worse, characterization really plays second fiddle to plot on this show (which is a very bad thing, since the plots are so unimaginative and formulaic). Take Jo Mills, for example (played by Jenny Seagrove). She’s a lawyer, and an old friend of Deed’s. She’s always in his courtroom, representing one side or another in the central case every episode. She’s Deed’s primary confidant and the target of his romantic overtures (very ethically questionable, especially since she always wins in his courtroom). But we really don’t learn anything about her beyond the facts that she is good at and passionate about her job (and since she’s a lawyer in a legal drama, her job is to advance the plot).
Judge Deed’s ethical lapses are another problem with the show. It’s not that I take issue with a show portraying a Judge doing unethical things. I take issue with a Judge doing unethical things being portrayed as a virtuous and noble paragon, the last honest man in the British judicial system. He breaks the rules to help whatever side he feels deserves it. He has sex with an enemy’s wife (and his pursuit of her seems mostly for the purpose of putting one over on his opponent) and then pulls some strings to have the surveillance tape that documented it destroyed (people on this show are always forgetting that there’s a surveillance camera in the Judge’s chambers). He shields his stupid daughter from any consequences over her various “eco-warrior” actions (like Jo, Deed’s daughter is a character whose complexity is limited to her passion to drive the plot forward). The only censure Deed takes over his adulterous affair comes from Jo, and it comes in the form of “I don’t want you but I don’t want anyone else to have you either.” Other than that he slips like a teflon-jacketed eel out of anything resembling consequences. The show expects us to root for him at every step, surrounding him with cartoonish opponents: heartless bureaucrats, vile rapists, sadistic wife-beaters, callous corporate fat-cats, and his ex-wife, who is introduced in a scene where she helps a corporation steal the pensions out from under its retired workers (And who appears in Deed’s courtroom in one episode as defense attorney; in yet another ethical lapse, Deed does not recuse himself in this situation. Guess what: she loses the case.)
While all of this bugs me, it’s not the portrayal of judicial ethics that bothers me the most. It’s the sheer boredom this show induces in its formulaic mediocrity. I wouldn’t dislike this stupid show so much if it was trashier or crazier. Maybe in the spousal abuse episode Deed could sentence the defendant to marry an angry orangutan with weighted boxing gloves on its hands. Or maybe when Deed’s eco-warrior daughter robs an animal testing facility she brings home not some lame dog but a genetically engineered manticore, and it eats Deed’s government enemies, and then there could be an episode about whether or not a manticore can be put on trial, as it was hitherto a mythical creature (and is technically three different creatures). Or in another episode Deed could sentence a defendant to serve his sentence in the Andromeda Galaxy, and the ensuing R&D to send him there bankrupts the British government and then it gets bought out by Network 23 who installs Max Headroom as the new king of England. So basically what I’m saying is, you should watch Max Headroom instead of this show.
Watchable anamorphic widescreen transfer (but with digital artifacts that betray a video format conversion). English subtitles. No extras to speak of, aside from some previews for other fine British televisual programming.